Harrow run – click here
After two days’ celebrations I’m a little the worse for wear. It’s hot. Dehydration is only a missed water opportunity away as my body is already primed for it. I am in, not West London, but West-west London: South Harrow. Even though I am returning to South East London later that day, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity to tramp unfamiliar ground. I look at the map. Foolishly refuse to take a phone or water and set out for Harrow-on-the-Hill and the School where Byron led a rebellion against the new headmaster in 1805, and Trollope attended as a ‘free day-boy’.
The pavement decoration of my childhood was sweetwrappers, fag butts, and white dog shit. In adulthood, it is gnawed and discarded chicken bones. They punctuate the pavement like commas strewn across a page. This street is busy. It is lunchtime on a Sunday afternoon and there are people everywhere. There a few recognisable shops. My favourite is the gall of “Hollywood Pizza – Kebabs and Burger’s”. I have never been to Hollywood. Maybe it is just like this there. A few people I run past are startled, not hearing me coming up behind them because of all the noise. One boy in a vest must have shown the tattooist a fake ID to get all that arm work done. I turn off the main street and head up the hill. Nowhere else in the world does geography work in the same way as London. One moment you are slipping on takeaway wrappers, the next you may as well be in a quiet village in the Cotswolds for all the Elizabethan architecture and carless streets.
I struggle to the top of the hill – it’s about a 250 foot climb – and head where the traffic is not going. On the right, a mews falls away from the road. I laugh when I see the road sign for it: Obadiah Slope – the most unctuous of villains from Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles. Vanity kicks in so I laugh louder than I need to. Like I want all the dwellers of Obadiah Slope to know that I got the joke, really, really, I got the joke – I belong here. But, anyone that laughs to be heard at this sign, just like Trollope, does not belong. They are a usurper.
The whole street is like turning down one of those alleys in Cambridge and finding yourself in the fifteenth century. I have crowned the top of Harrow’s Hill and the road begins to slant and curl away. An old couple are crowding the pavement coming up the other way. And, like she’s featuring in this Edwardian drama, she has a sunbrella. She falls behind her husband to let me pass. I do the most unaccountable thing. I have never done this before. I find that I am also featuring in the same Edwardian drama. I salute her. She smiles wide.
The sun, hard on my face. I am starting to feel a little thirsty. I am not willing to give up all this hard won height so quickly. I turn back the way I came, but I cross the street so as not to alarm the Edwardian couple. Through a narrow crack between two of the school buildings, I catch a TV screen of stunning view. The buildings I can see are like letters in an agnaram. All the characters are there. You know the word, but it looks completely different. The London skyline looks odd from here. There is the bowing arc of Wembley stadium, the Nat West Tower, the unfinished Shard, the Gherkin, but they are all mixed up by their new perspective and arrangement. I must see more.
A few yards further and there is a gate ajar. It has a big sign that says ‘PRIVATE’, but unfortunately I don’t see it. There is no chance of a stealthy look because I am now running on a gravel path that wheezes a smoker’s cough with every step. The TV screeen of London spreads to a super-wide Cinemascope. Wedges of green field spread out beneath me. But someone is here. They are watching me. They are sat on a bench reading. I try to act like I am supposed to be here. I bid them good afternoon and ask them the quickest way down to the fields. Without missing a beat, they tell me. I’m off again, crunching down the gravel path. Working my way between the folds of the buildings. Some kids are photographing some others who are wearing what look like dunce’s caps.
It looks like Sussex, not London. It is so green and deep it’s like you could swim in it.
Then, another corner, and straight ahead of me is a running track. I can’t not.
This is my first time on a running track since school. Perhaps the first since my terrible ‘mile’ in the house match at the age of 14 – when I came in last. There are countless coloured markings that I don’t understand but I am tempted to take my shoes off it is so soft. I go round once. There are hundreds of windows overlooking me and people are playing tennis in the next field. Surely I can’t get away with this.
I go round again. I spy someone walking fast in my direction from the car park. Time to leave. I don’t look behind me – why would I? – I am supposed to be here.
I branch off onto a rugby pitch heading still for the London skyline. But there’s a ha-ha. The ground dips steeply into a shoreline of breaking nettles. And, “ha ha”, there is a surreptitious couple here lain on the grass. Who are they hiding from? They certainly are not schoolchildren. I have to run past them, dance through the nettles and I am into another field that looks like farmland.
The sun is high. My throat burns for water. I am at least three miles from base.
And still, there are more people. Walkers this time, a family? I pretend to myself that I am brave in these situations, but I am uncomfortable. I run straight towards them – of course I would, I am supposed to be here. I smile a welcome but they ignore me. Over a stile, a field, over another stile, another field. A gate. Then, a nest of brambles. No one has picked them. They don’t need to forage, here. The bush is full of inky black fruit. I pull at one to taste. It is as sweet as honey. Within seconds I am grabbing at them feeding myself with both hands. Each one bursts in my mouth – water! Only this way can you get the full flavour of the fruit, with the traces of grit and spiderweb that seem to accentuate the deep, deep, sweetness. Warm, still, from the heat of the sun. They remind me of the grapes in Poussin’s, Autumn from his Four Seasons, where bunches of berries are bigger than the torsoes of the pickers.
Over another stile and I am suddenly back in the white and noise of suburbia. A few more metres and it is a dual carriageway, like the fields and fruit were a dream. I am lost. I can’t retrace my steps, it’s too far, now. The risk of being caught on the school grounds was worth it for a first look, but not for getting back. I run to the lights in the hope that one of the junction’s options will look familiar. They don’t. The place names are all softly familiar, but I can’t situate myself in relation to them. The traffic stops. The car windows are open in the heat. I ask a driver and girlfriend of a glimmering Audi for directions. His voice is absolutely London, but his manner is not. He is prolix and careful in his response. I had expected him to wind up his window, eyes forward. Instead, he explains the landmarks that I must look out for. He can see that I am tired and hot. He apologizes for sending me up a steep hill. ‘Are you sure you will be OK?’, he asks. His car is facing the opposite direction but his intonation is clearly offering me a lift. In the sun and on the run the normal rules don’t apply. I feel like he would have opened his wallet if I’d asked.
“I’ll be alright. Thank you.” The lights change and they are on their way again. And I am on mine.
I make my second climb up Harrow’s Hill. I hit a bend in the road that at last I recognise. I run faster and faster and faster, giddy with the excitement of the run – or was it just the crimson sugar of the blackberries hitting my bloodstream.
The shape of my run is lost to me. I cannot visualise it. Only when I return will the magic of GPS reveal exactly where I have been. On the map, my runs are superimposed in red, arterial tracks in the landscape, but I am not their lifeblood. It is of course these landscapes that now run in my veins.